Topeka Free State High's football team celebrated Halloween a little early this weekend.
The Firebirds pulled out their biggest trick of the season Friday night at Washburn Rural and in return received an even sweeter treat.
For the second straight week the Firebirds' execution on a halfback pass was flawless. This time it earned Free State a 14-10 Class 6A District 4 victory and the Firebirds' fourth straight trip to the state playoffs.
"We've actually been working on that play all year," FSHS coach Bob Lisher said of sophomore running back Brian Murphy's 58-yard, game-winning touchdown toss to senior tight end Corey Cooper with 6:01 to play.
"We were so wide open I didn't know if Brian was going to get the ball to him."
The District 4 champion Firebirds (3-6 overall, 2-1 district) will play host to Shawnee Mission West (7-2, 2-1) on Nov. 5, most likely at Haskell Stadium.
Last week, the Firebirds tamed Lawrence High, 14-12, when Brett Lisher intercepted Jeff Colter's halfback pass late in their intracity showdown.
But Friday's performance might have come at an even more crucial -- yet opportune -- time.
"I knew it was a touchdown," Murphy said. "It wasn't exactly on the money, but I just threw it as hard as I could, and, even though it was wobbly, Cooper caught it and ran for his life."
The trickery, however, only was part of an exciting second-half comeback for the Firebirds in a game that pretty much epitomized their path to the playoffs this season.
Free State, which started the year 0-5, trailed 10-0 at halftime. But then Lisher got on his team during the break, saying his speech "didn't have the most positive of word choices," yet the Firebirds not only responded but also rallied.
Then, as has been the case since Free State defeated Olathe Northwest a month ago, the Firebirds finished with a dramatic ending.
"It's definitely unbelievable," Murphy said of Free State's battling back from its early season struggles to next week playing host to a playoff game for the first time ever.
"I think where we were at earlier this season a lot of teams would have just folded," he said. "But we never ever gave up."
Not even Friday, when the Firebirds managed just 69 first-half yards, while the Junior Blues capitalized with two-second quarter scores to take a commanding lead.
Lisher's Fiery speech seemed to work.
Free State limited Rural, which was forced to use its third-string running back all of the second half because of injuries, to just 22 yards.
The Firebirds especially keyed in on Junior Blues quarterback Bryce Cronister, who had run for 65 yards in the first 24 minutes, including a nifty 27-yard option for the game's first score.
Cronister touched the ball 11 times but gained only 16 yards in the second half.
At the same time the Firebirds' offense finally got rolling.
At the end of the third quarter senior Jamie Resseguie bolted up the middle for an 89-yard run, only a shoestring tackle keeping him from scoring. But the senior plunged in from a yard out two plays later to begin Free State's comeback.
The Firebirds were forced to punt on their ensuing possession and then looked to be in trouble when Rural pinned them inside their own 10-yard line with less than seven minutes to play.
Senior quarterback Nick Witmer, who split time with sophomore Ryan Murphy, was sacked for a loss of a yard to start the drive. But a 13-yard pickup a play later by Witmer provided a spark.
Resseguie was jammed up the middle, but then Brian Murphy took the quick toss outside to setup the trick pass.
"All I was thinking was just catch the ball," Cooper said. "I was pretty nervous because it was me and no one else, but once I hauled it in, I knew we were going to win."